3 Reasons Water Wells Fail and Why Sustainable Development is Possible

Sustainable development of safe water access is vital to the livelihoods of children everywhere. In 2016, approximately 8% of all deaths of children under the age of five were the result of diarrhea. The main cause of diarrhea? Unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene practices.

This means that even today, the world’s youngest children are still dying from something as preventable as unsafe drinking water.

With so many advancements in safe water construction, how is it that children are still dying at alarming rates from water-related disease?

While there is still great a need for safe water sources all over the world, a significant cause of the problem is that water wells are breaking shortly after construction, leaving communities with no option but to return to drinking contaminated water.

Sustainable Development and Construction

While there are several types of safe water sources, a drilled borehole with a hand pump (referred to simply as ‘water wells’) are common solutions for rural, water-scarce villages. Water wells access groundwater in deep aquifers, which are less likely to be contaminated than surface or shallow water sources.

As the United Nations continues to prioritize safe water access for all in their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), global attention turns to the urgent need for sustainable safe water solutions for the most vulnerable populations.

In 2015, UNICEF reported that 147 countries halved the number of people without proper sanitation and safe drinking water during the 25 year time period between 1990 and 2015. Many of those water access solutions were drilled water wells.

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A water well in Uganda protected by a fence to keep cattle out and a metal roof for shade

The progress is undoubtedly significant and should be celebrated. But a question remains: how many of those water wells are still functioning today?

In 2017, the Hidden Crisis Project, a UK-funded research program, selected 200 water wells at random in Uganda and visited each one to test functionality. Disappointingly, the researchers discovered that 45% were not functional and only 24% were able to provide safe and adequate quantities of water to the communities they served.

The others, if they were producing water at all, weren’t producing enough for the communities and/or the water was unsafe for drinking.

It’s estimated that $1.2-1.5 billion dollars in investments were lost between 1989 and 2009 because of nonfunctional water wells. That’s decades of water access work and billions of dollars wasted, a grave disservice to the very communities that were intended to benefit from the water projects.

What we know now is that construction, by itself, does not translate to long-term access. Communities deserve better, and sustainable development is crucial to truly solving the water crisis.


Three Reasons Wells Fail

  1. Uninformed Siting

It takes a great deal of technical preparation to choose an appropriate location for a drilling a water well. Water engineers call this “siting,” the act of assessing and deciding upon a location for the water source.

To choose an appropriate location, experts must study the geology, the depth of the water table, the topography of the area, and the distance from the site and contaminants such as outhouses, garbage dumps, and grazing cattle.

If a well is drilled too close to human and animal waste, for example, the groundwater surrounding that well is at risk for contamination. If the well is drilled in an area that does not have enough water, the community will again find themselves in need.

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“Siting” for contruction of a drilled well is an important process requiring the expertise of geologists, engineers, and the communities themselves.

In some cases, the chemical weathering of the geology could make the water unsafe to drink. Sometimes, even if the water is safe, the geology of the earth results in water that has an unpleasant taste, color, and/or odor.

Many of these issues can’t be fixed following construction. That’s why it’s so important that high-quality siting is undertaken to account for all the factors that may impact a well before it’s drilled, preventing problems in the years ahead.

  1. Construction Issues

Similar to well siting, there are a number of factors in the drilling process that can cause water wells to fail in the near-term. These include the depth of the well, the depth of the hand-pump, the placement and quality of the materials, and more.

Groundwater fluctuates with the seasons. If a well is drilled at too shallow a depth to save on expenses, communities whose well produced enough water during the rainy season will struggle to pump enough water when the water table drops during the dry season.

Low quality or improper construction materials can also cause the well to fail early on.

Ensuring that these problems don’t occur takes a high level of technical knowledge and skill by those conducting the work. It also takes sufficient financial resources and access to quality construction materials.

  1. Inadequate Maintenance

As with all things mechanical, hand pumps and water wells are going to wear with use over time. It’s important that communities have access to regular maintenance, a supply chain of parts, and emergency repair services.

This is often referred to as Operations and Maintenance (O&M).

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Lifewater engineers test water quality at a well in Uganda

If maintenance is not regularly conducted and parts aren’t replaced with the proper frequency, even the highest-quality, most expertly-constructed hand pumps and water wells will break down prematurely.

The problem is that conducting preventive maintenance on wells in developing nations can be very challenging. Communities must locate a trained mechanic, source the necessary spare parts, and have the financial means to pay for the service.

For economically poor communities, especially those in rural areas where Lifewater works, these challenges can be nearly insurmountable.

Finding trained mechanics who know how to perform major repairs is a challenge, and spare parts, in some instances, are hundreds of miles/kilometers away from the people that need them.


Constructing Safe Water that Lasts

It’s for these reasons that sustainable development has been a challenge in rural, water-poor communities across the globe.

Without a functioning hand pump, communities are forced to revert to their previous (often unsafe and distant) water source, putting them back where they were before they had a functional water well.

Lifewater already has sustainability measures in place, including annual or bi annual water quality testing for five years after construction and mandated village savings accounts for repair costs.

But this year, Lissie Babb, Lifewater’s Sustainability Officer and hand pump expert, is working in partnership with local governments and communities to develop a sustainable system of maintenance and repair for all Lifewater constructed water wells.

At the center of Lifewater’s new sustainability program is a belief that without sustainability at the forefront of every decision, progress will be short-lived.

“For Lifewater, it is essential that we put systems in place that ensure water points remain functional well into the future; we must create local operations and maintenance systems that are reliable and of the highest quality,” she said. “Our new sustainability program is seeking to do exactly that, and I look forward to implementing it over the next 1.5 years.”

We’re improving the approach to solving the global water and sanitation crisis, and more communities are seeing safe water flow, for longer.

Choose a Village. Change a Life.